Religion and Character

Saturday, April 7, 2007 it snowed in Central Texas. And maybe a quirk in the weather patterns here was enough to send me to church, devout agnostic that I am, although it wasn’t snowing when I stopped at my friend’s shop in Salado, Texas; it was just sleeting, and I was 99 percent certain I could get a nice, free hot cup of coffee there, and maybe the sleet would let up, and I’d be on my way.

Or maybe I went to church because my friend invited me to the regular Saturday service at the chapel behind his shop, and that sounded good because afterward would be a potluck dinner in which the main dish was roast lamb, and I hadn’t eaten that day, so I’d suffer through a church service for a free meal.

Or maybe it’s because I was grateful another friend had loaned me money earlier that day, and a little prayer of thanks was in order to a god I don’t really believe in, but what the hell, I’m desperate — I have little money, no job other than freelancing, and less hope — and whatever comes of it might help.

Plus, it was sleeting. In April. In Texas. And once I had begun my second cup of coffee, it was snowing. It was snowing, and beginning to stick. In April. In Texas. So, anything could happen. Maybe even a god I don’t really believe in would answer prayers, or at least listen. Plus, there was roast lamb in my friend’s oven.

Since late March, I’ve been reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I’ve come to the part, about halfway through the novel, in which Levin, an unbeliever, has to make confession in order to marry his beloved Kitty. Levin is my least favorite character in the novel, perhaps because he reminds me of myself in more ways than I’d like to admit (one of his least charming characteristics is his inability to see ambiguity, the shades of gray in human character and action that novels tend to elevate into art; it’s a trait I battle with and don’t like in myself, especially when dealing with uncertainty). “Levin c’est moi,” Flaubert might say.

In light of my recent experience in church, I found myself reflecting on this passage:

Levin found himself . . .  in the vaguest position in regard to religion. Believe he could not, and at the same time he had no firm conviction that it was all wrong. And consequently, not being able to believe in the significance of what he was doing nor regard it with indifference as an empty formality, during the whole period of preparing for the sacrament he was conscious of a feeling of discomfort and shame at doing what he did not himself understand, and what, as an inner voice told him, was therefore false and wrong.

The day I attended the service was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, a day of hope because Christ is about to defeat death — the tomb will be empty and Christ risen on Easter Sunday. It wasn’t the first time I had gone to services at the little Episcopal chapel behind my friend’s shop; for various reasons I had gone to services in the past (as a journalist covering religion, and interested in immersion journalism, as a potential seeker who ended up at the time confirming his own agnosticism), but each time I dreaded parts of the service, particularly Eucharist (in the Episcopal church anyone is welcome to particpate in communion); because I’m not a believer, I feel strange, as out of place as Levin must have felt, taking something believers take so seriously (Episcopalians believe in consubstantiation — Christ is present in the bread and wine, but the bread and wine don’t become the body and blood as in transubstantiation, which Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches believe), but I take the bread and the wine, because I tend to feel even more out of place sitting in the pew, singled out as being out of place.

This particular snowy Saturday, it wasn’t the Eucharist that created such discomfort, but the point in the service in which everyone renews their baptismal vows. I was raised Baptist, and baptised at 17. There were no baptismal vows, you just went under and somehow were a new person.

So, I faced something that was somewhat unfamiliar, but unfamiliarity with the vows weren’t creating the discomfort. It was phrases such as “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” and “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” that were making me feel like Levin, as if by saying these things I was being dishonest with myself and others; I was being “false and wrong.”

And yet, there was one thing that struck me in the renewal: the repetition of “I will, with God’s help.” Maybe that’s why I was at church. Because I have no strong conviction that it is all wrong. The devout agnostic wanted God’s help, because like Job, everything had fallen to shit. I was a character in my own novel, seeking some kind of redemption or atonement, wanting a blessing, rather than experiencing a curse.

As I continue to read Anna Karenina, it’s clear Tolstoy to some extent modeled Levin after Job. And most of us at some time must feel like Job, a man subjected to a terrible and shocking bet between God and Satan. No matter what, through loss of everything meaningful in his life, Job never curses God. I haven’t been so faithful. I haven’t had any faith at all. And perhaps that is justice enough in this god’s eyes to continue his wager, and perhaps intentionally lose on occasion.

An unbeliever, Levin slowly succumbs to faith. I still doubt. Levin is one of the few literary characters I’ve dealt with since embarking on my 100-novels reading project that finds religion forming his character, shaping him, as religion, or the lack of, has shaped me. It’s rare to see characters in contemporary fiction show how religion, or the lack of, has shaped them, and yet, at least for Americans, religion is still a viable force that does shape our characters. I wonder why it doesn’t seem to shape many fictional characters’ lives in any meaningful way.

As for me, I still say I know that I don’t know. Unlike Job, I can’t say I’m happy with this so-called God, almighty that he (or she) is; faith is still elusive. And I’m not really sure why.

A 19th Century Kind Of Style

I’ve again been dipping into the 19th Century — as part of my 100 novels project — last month  Huckleberry Finn, and this month Anna Karenina. While I’m not up to offering, at the moment, any great, piercing critical insights, I find myself enjoying the formality of the language, of the rhetoric, even in Twain, who presents a genuine American voice. Besides the intimidating length of some 19th Century novels — my copy of Anna Karenina is 912 pages — I think modern readers may be intimidated by the formality of the prose. I know I was when I first picked up Twain in elementary school.

As writers and readers, at least in English, we’ve been influenced by the Hemingway-esque, terse sentences, the zippy, piss-urgent language of The Associated Press, of journalism, and the rhetorical notion of "open" punctuation–fewer commas, and even fewer semicolons (because of the tendency toward shorter sentences?).

But perhaps the 19th Century novelists learned their prosody and punctuation from that era’s teachers of rhetoric, of the written word meant to be spoken, of different "beats" or pauses for different punctuation. I get a sense, especially from Twain, that his prose begs to be read aloud,  read carefully, whether read aloud or silently, not zipped through as if it’s the latest from the AP. It’s hard to say whether this is true for the Tolstoy since it’s a translation.

Other oddities of the Constance Garnett translation: I keep encountering many one-sentence paragraphs, and those paragraph breaks sometimes don’t seem consistent with the flow of the action of a scene. (Is Russian like this? Or rather, Tolstoy’s Russian?)